"Are you leading an attack on this burrow?" she asked the lead female. "This is the home of your mate."
"This is one of my mates," the leader replied. "He is a liar. See the flag he flies." She pointed to the nearest tall, grey-and-white striped feather.
Their patriotism had started during the spring migration from sea to shore. On a hot, windy day, in response to a bird attack, the fiddler crabs organized themselves into a drove. Such droves were common enough for them, unlike their stone crab and emerald crab neighbors. Aided by a low tide and a narrow shelf of sand, the drove formed an especially tight formation. It couldn't be scattered by predators.
A pair of egrets tried. They waded in and endured cuts at their long legs in order to fling fiddler crabs away from the drove. From there, they could do as they pleased with their prey. The egrets were too mighty and too fast. The seagulls, fortunately, were not. The first one swooped in to grab a female from the edge of the crowd only to find a dozen males and as many females latching on. Together, the crabs dragged the bird to the middle of the drove. They took it the ground.
The predator became the prey. Other seagulls veered off to watch, warily.
The fiddler crabs fought a long battle. Although they did not take down another seagull during their migration, they wounded three others and chased off a pair of terns. They arrived inland around dusk, which gave them time to find or build burrows. The colony had lost fewer members than usual. Someone got the idea to celebrate.
Fiddler crabs are not usually self-sacrificing. Yet that day they had fought to protect one another. After dark, many fighters traveled from home to home, not challenging their rivals for territory or mates but waving their cheliped claws in praise. Some crabs gave gifts of feathers they had won. Others decorated their homes with their feathers.
By the next day, the feathers had become flags of pride. Crabs who had fought hard enough to win them achieved a sort of esteem. There seemed to be a promise associated with the flags - a commitment to come to the aid of the colony.
During mating season, crabs with such flags enjoyed great success. It was an impressive display of hardiness to have survived a bird attack, even more to have come away with a trophy. The flag-bearers declared themselves patriots among the fiddler crabs. Many of them spoke at length about it. They offered to come to the aid of the entire colony in future battles. A few brave, jealous souls launched attacks that season against small birds. They aimed to gain feathers to increase their status.
In a few weeks, however, a problem arose from the patriotic pride. There had been no more battles but many more promises to serve in one. Also, it was possible to attain a flag without actual service to the colony. Scraps of feather in front of a burrow became a statement of good intentions, not a tangible reminder of good deeds done.
"Too many promises were broken this morning," said the leader of the retaliation raids.
"I was near the end of the drove," the young crab replied. "I didn't see."
"If you had, you would feel the betrayal."
As the females had taken their trip along the coast to deposit eggs in the shallows that morning, an attack had come not from above but from the eastern waters. A colony of aggressive stone crabs, larger and tougher than the fiddler crabs, had lain in wait for the migration. They erupted from the surf and severed the limbs of the foremost females. The egg-layers scrambled back. A different set of females and a squad of males surged forward.
Those were the members of the colony who remembered their pledges.
Fiddler crabs had grown accustomed to defending themselves from stone crabs. They did it every year. But this attack was larger. Five giant stone crabs tore into the defenders. Several males fell to them immediately, one tossed back to a waiting family of stone crabs as a meal.
Still the defenders could have held their line had it not been for the deserters. Some fiddler crabs regarded themselves as losers in that season's mating fights, others held grudges, and many forgot their patriotism for other reasons. Fewer crabs had surged forward in defense than were needed. When another third of the contingent fled, the defensive drove cracked. The mighty stone crabs leaped into the breaches and meted twice the damage they'd ever achieved.
Among the casualties were the bravest members of the colony and the strongest, egg-carrying females, their leaders.
Afterward, the remaining fiddler crabs re-gathered their troops, deposited their eggs, and headed home. On the return trek, they plotted revenge. Those who held to their pledges felt a terrible fury toward those who had broken theirs.
"But one of your other mates didn't fight. Why do you attack the home of one crab but not the other?" the young one asked as they surrounded the burrow. "Neither came to our defense."
"One of them flew a flag promising to do so," her leader replied.
She tore down the wall of feathers in front of the home of her mate. She heard the male skittering backward, cowering inside. Another female ripped apart the fallen flags in her rage.
"We'll deal with the liar together," she promised.
"We are not the brightest or the strongest," the leader told her young companion. "Smarter animals are not as fooled, I suppose. To me, the flags stood for something noble. Real patriotism, real sacrifice for others, I admire. But this fake patriotism is worse than not coming to our defense. It claims the glory of self-sacrifice while committing the most evil selfishness. I will not abide it any longer."